By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
In my home office here in Memphis, surrounded by my library of sports and reference books and three spoiled dogs, there are also three items hung on walls within my view.
One is a framed Sports Illustrated cover from March 6, 1968. The headline reads, “LSU’s Pistol Pete – The Hottest Shot.” The cover features four action shots of late LSU guard “Pistol” Pete Maravich that frame a dominant picture of him getting instructions from his father Press, who was LSU’s basketball coach.
Another is a huge action shot of the Pistol in one of the different style of uniforms he wore in his first four seasons in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, before he was traded to the New Orleans Jazz. He’s about to release a picture-perfect jumper over two Boston Celtics.
The last thing is a framed Pete Maravich trading card, given to me by my friend Stats Norsworthy.
Guess you can see a pattern here, can’t you?
We all have our sports heroes, even crusty old sportswriters who are taught from day one in Journalism 101 that you’ve got to be fair and objective, that you can’t show an ounce of bias.
That is true, except in the case of your sports hero, because in your pre-teen and teenager eyes, they can do no wrong. And even later on, when you learn of their human flaws that are eventually exposed, whether it’s through their actions or through the words of numerous biographers, you put that aside.
In Pete’s case, there were some personal off-the-court demons that haunted him. They were caused by the pressure of feeding the monster he created, not as only as college basketball’s all-time leading scorer, but as the most creative passer and ballhandler in the history of the game.
When you average a unfathomable 44.2 points per game in college like The Pistol and play with such a flair and imagination that the basketball court before opening tipoff is merely an empty canvas waiting to be filled by your creative artistry, every night has to be Showtime.
Suffice to say that, in the legend he created, there was a price to be paid. Pete died way too soon at age 40 from a heart attack playing a game of pickup basketball in January 1988 (he had an undetected congenital heart defect), but by that time he had become a strong Christian and had a peace about him he never had as a player.
Less than five years before he died, I got to spend an entire day with him on assignment when I worked with the Shreveport (La.) Journal. He was a special guest of the Louisiana Special Olympics being conducted at LSU, and he basically walked around all day meeting, greeting, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
He never stopped moving except to eat lunch, and lunch wasn’t much with him, because he had become a vegetarian.
There we were, face-to-face, me a 26-year-old journalist interviewing his hero. We talked about his career, his dramatic transformation that helped him find the Lord. We talked about everything, so much so, that I later won a national writing award from my story of our day together.
The one thing I didn’t do that day – and I’ve always regretted – was to thank him for getting me through a tough time.
Pete’s college career coincided at a time in my life – my junior high years – when my Dad, who as I’ve written before in this space was LSU’s sports information director – died of a heart attack at age 45.
At that moment, I badly needed something to fill the void of my loss. That something, despite me being a chubby kid, was my passion for playing basketball. And if you grew up in Baton Rouge at that time and you loved hoops, you wanted to be Pete Maravich.
You wanted to copy all his self-created ballhandling drills, the ones that taught him to dribble through his legs back-and-forth like the ball was a yo-yo on a string. You wanted work for hours throwing the most outrageous passes that nobody would dare try but The Pistol. You’d take your athletic socks and cut out all the elastic so they would droop, just like The Pistol’s floppy lucky socks that were his trademark. You worked on shooting his stop-and-pop off-balance jumpers.
When Dale Brown succeeded Press Maravich as LSU’s coach, one of the grassroots things that Dale did to promote LSU’s program was hand out purple and gold nets. If Dale was driving by a house in Baton Rouge and saw it had a basketball goal, he’d stop, knock on the front door and hand out a net when somebody answered.
But Dale couldn’t have done that without Pete Maravich (and Brown later re-paid Pete by getting the Louisiana Legislature to re-name the LSU Assembly Center as the Maravich Assembly Center). Because before Pete showed up on LSU’s campus in the fall of 1966 as a skinny 160-pound freshman and the son of the new Tigers’ coach just hired from North Carolina State, basketball barely existed in Baton Rouge.
Nobody knew this better than Joe Dean, a former three-time All-SEC guard at LSU from 1949-52. He was a teammate of Bob Pettit, the Tigers’ first great NBA player who had an 11-year pro career and won every honor imaginable, including being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (like Pete eventually did).
After his college career, Joe eventually became a shoe rep and an executive for Converse, basically the only basketball footwear worn at the time. He still loved the game and still lived in Baton Rouge in the heart of football-crazy country.
That all changed when Pete slipped on a purple and gold uniform and had 50 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists on Dec. 1, 1966 in his first game of the Baby Bengals, LSU’s freshman team, against Southeastern Louisiana.
About eight or nine years before, Joe covered South Carolina as part of his Converse territory, which meant he stopped in Clemson University to visit its coach, a guy named Press Maravich.
Joe had lunch with Press and his assistant, and then after finishing some business in town returned later that day to watch Clemson practice.
“When I get there, I started watching this skinny little kid, probably in the seventh or eighth grade,” recalls Joe, now 80 years old and retired in Baton Rouge after serving as LSU’s athletic director. “He’s playing games of `21’ and `H-O-R-S-E’ with the Clemson varsity and just kicking their tails. It was Pete.
“And later when it was announced Press was coming to LSU, I talked to our Converse rep who was covering the Carolinas at the time. He said, `Have you seen this kid play? He’s a legend up here.’ ”
Pete’s critics argued that since his father coached him that he had carte blanche to shoot as much as he pleased in college, therefore he could post the gaudy scoring totals. True, The Pistol averaged 38.2 field goal attempts in his 83-game varsity career in which LSU was just 49-35. The Tigers’ only postseason appearance was in the National Invitation Tournament in Pete’s senior season.
Yet, you have to consider Pete was almost a 44 percent career field goal shooter. Even more impressive is he scored all those points – 3,667 – in just three seasons because freshman were ineligible for varsity competition and Pete didn’t the benefit of playing with a three-point line. Dale Brown once looked at Pete’s LSU game film and determined Pete would have averaged 10 more points per game had there been a three-point line in college when he was firing away.
Ask any coach who had to try and stop The Pistol, such as C.M. Newton, and they’ll tell you that 6-5 Peter Press Maravich, his sagging lucky socks flopping and his moptop haircut almost covering his eyes, was way more than just a scoring machine
''He'd get his 44 points, but he was such a great passer that he made everybody else on his team better,'' says C.M., who was Alabama's coach when he had to face Pete. ''Not only was he was a complete player, but he had unbelievable mental toughness.''
Teams that defended The Pistol had to make a decision whether to guard him with more than one defender or let him get his points and try to cut off everybody else. C.M. tried the latter when Pete was a senior when The Pistol ran up a career-high 69 points in a 106-104 loss to the Crimson Tide.
''We played him straight up with one man. . . . I never dreamed he'd get 69,'' C.M. recalls.
The only team that consistently shut down Pete was Tennessee, which beat The Pistol and LSU five of six games with Pete reaching 30 points only once. Then-Vols' coach Ray Mears designed a defense that often found Pete being shadowed by one defender (usually Bill Hahn) who guided him into traps.
'We'd have one guy stay with him all the time,'' the late Mears explained of his strategy to silence The Pistol. ''When he dribbled past halfcourt, we'd be in a 1-3-1 trap. Another defender would usually come up and double-team him with the three remaining defenders playing a zone in a 'T' formation.
''If Maravich got to the middle, he'd get triple-teamed. Sometimes, he even got tripled 20 feet away from the goal. Billy tried like heck to keep Maravich from getting the ball. We made him take a lot of bad shots, a lot of off-balance jumpers.''
While Pete’s scoring managed to get the attention of the national media, it was his passing and ballhandling that packed gyms wherever he played. Standing room-only crowds for basketball was something the SEC had never seen much before, if at all.
Pete turned heads in his first days playing pickup games on the LSU campus as a rail-thin 6-4 freshman.
''I remember when I was a senior and our assistant coach Jay McCreary told me that the new kid Maravich was a hell of a player,'' Brad Brian, who was LSU's radio analyst during the Maravich era, once told me. ''And when I saw this terrible skinny-looking kid walk on the floor, I started chuckling.
''After we played for an hour and he threw passes I’d never seen before, I went straight to a phone to call my brother. I told him, 'Come out to LSU tomorrow and buy all the season tickets you can. I just played against the finest basketball player I've played in my life.’ ''
The Pistol rarely threw a pass that didn't require a degree-of-difficulty. Every fastbreak was an adventure as he fired passes between-the-legs, behind-the-back, behind-the-neck, the no-looks. . . . nothing was beyond his imagination.
'I played basketball for the people,'' Pete once said. ''I looked at basketball as entertainment. Do something unique and you were providing those people their entertainment dollar. I loved to turn 'em on.''
To that end, LSU did something special in its pregame warmups. It put Pete at the free throw line facing midcourt with two lines of teammates on facing him on his left and his right. One of them would throw him the ball, he’d whirl the ball between his legs, around his back and neck without touching the floor, then flip a fancy pass he’d create on the spot to one of his teammates cutting to the basket.
It was like Pete had his own personal Harlem Globetrotters magic circle, and fans ate it up.
He also relished personal challenges issued to him by opponents. When he played in the Loyola Fieldhouse in New Orleans where the Buccaneers, the American Basketball Association team played, he scored 52 points on 22-of-34 shooting with more than half of his baskets coming from behind the ABA three-point line. One time a University of Wyoming guard named Harry Hall issued a pregame challenge that he would ''Jam The Pistol.” The Pistol went for 45 points, fouled out Hall and said afterwards, “That was stupid of him to say that. . .if I have to stick the ball in my pants and jump through the hoop myself to win, I’ll do it.”
At Oregon State, he scored 46 points that included a NCAA record 30-of-31 free throws, hitting 21 straight before missing.
And there was his legendary 40-hook shot for his 57th and 58 points at Georgia in the final game of his junior year when he had dribbled like a Globetrotter through the entire Bulldogs' team trying to kill out the last seconds in a double-overtime win. With the game clock about to hit all zeroes, The Pistol launched his long distance hook, turned away from the basket after he released it and thrust both arms up in the air. Just as the final buzzer sounded, the ball ripped the net so perfectly the net hung on the rim. The crowd, which included some Georgia cheerleaders, rushed the court and carried him off the floor.
His college career was so mind-boggling that there was nothing he could do as a pro to equal it. Yet he averaged 24.2 points in a 10-year pro career with the Hawks, the Jazz and the Celtics, showing his same breathtaking ball-handling skills and a more refined shot selection. Eight years after his death, Pete was honored by the NBA in 1996 as one of its greatest 50 players ever.
Two of the players also on that list, former Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and former Spurs guard George “Iceman” Gervin, once told me Maravich was the most creative player they’d ever played against.
“When I was growing up playing ball on playgrounds (during the 1970s), we all pretended to be Pete Maravich,” said Isiah, whose pro career started in 1981-82 just after Pete’s ended. “We’d throw an impossible pass or hit an off-balance jumper and scream `Maravich!’ Players in the NBA today still can’t do the things with a basketball that Pete did.”
Even now 43 years removed from his senior season at LSU, The Pistol’s legacy is stronger than ever. He still holds a boatload of records – 21 LSU, 18 SEC and 16 NCAA marks.
His instructional series of “Homework Basketball” videos, showing the drills he created that made him a ball-handling wizard, have been invaluable teaching tools. Almost every jersey he ever wore in high school, college and pro remain consistent sellers.
For all of us 50 somethings, Pete will always be a part of us, a reminder when we were young and life was still of possibilities.
And now, because of smart phones, The Pistol is absolutely always with me. Because sometimes when I’m covering a basketball game that is excruciatingly painful to watch because of general ineptness, I just reach in my pocket for my I-phone and punch up a couple of YouTube videos.
One is called “The Ultimate Pete Maravich Mix” and the other is “The Ultimate College Pete Maravich Mix.”
Once you watch them, you’ll agree with me that there has never been a basketball player on any level of competition with the passing and ballhandling skills of The Pistol.
Of all the times I saw him play live in college and in the pros, my favorite memory came on that day I spent with him at the Special Olympics in Baton Rouge after he retired.
He wandered into the LSU Fieldhouse where the basketball competition was being staged, and was immediately surrounded by kids urging him to shoot some some shots.
“I haven’t picked up a ball in probably six months, maybe a year,” Pete warned, “so my shot might be a little rusty.”
The Pistol flipped in a short bank shot, backed out to 20 feet in the right corner and made a shot that went through the goal so clean it barely moved the net. Then he proceeded to hit six more shots in succession, all never touching the net, as he worked to the far left corner.
Finally, he moved back under the basket and announced, “Give me three tries.”
Almost the showman closing with the big finish, Pete spun the ball on his index finger, tossed the ball in the air, bounced it off his forehead, off the backboard and into the basket.
As the Special Olympians applauded, the Pistol said, “Thank you very much.”
No, thank you very much Pete for blessing us all for what you gave the game of basketball. Something it never had before, hasn’t had since and will never have again.